I watched my sister die last Thursday. Held her hand and told her it was ok to let go, to just go to Jesus. It was hard and it was holy and it was painful in so many ways.
Painful was watching my dad lose another child. His first-born son died in 2009 after a long battle. As a mother, I have only my imagination to tell me what this has been like for him. A parents’ greatest fear came true for him not once, but twice. More than I hated watching my sister die, I hated watching my dad’s daughter die in front of him. Yet, there was something good in that, somehow. Good that he was there, holding her hand. She always called him “daddy”. They lived together and took care of each other until they couldn’t. I called him to tell him it was close, and her last breath came about 5 minutes after he sat down next to her. I think she was waiting for him. There is a sweetness in that, something to cherish.
My younger sister was Kim’s power of attorney for medical decisions. The weight of deciding where my sister would die was heavy, and that was painful to watch. I will probably never know the amount of phone calls and conversations with nurses, doctors, insurance companies and hospice people that she had to have. Kim didn’t want to die in the hospital and my sister made sure that wish was honored. Kim came home to my sister’s house, to a hospital bed in the living room where she could hear the sounds of family all around her. Kelly was determined to not let our sister die with strangers, in a hospital that she never wanted to be in, and I am grateful for her tenacity. Granted, Kelly is a woman of small patience, so nurses, doctors and anyone on the telephone with her bore the brunt of that, but she loves fiercely and I’m glad that I got to watch her love our sister the way she did. She and I each shared Kim’s life individually — she, close up and me from far away. But we shared her dying together, and I believe Kim was as comforted by that as I was.
I left the day after she died. My daughter’s due date for her first baby was yesterday, and I wanted to be sure to be home for that. As I write this, we are still waiting for the arrival of that sweet little life. I don’t know what to make of this tension. Grieving a life that left and joyously awaiting the one that is coming. The ugliness of death and the beauty of new life. Missing my sister and anticipating my grand baby.
Those last days and hours with my sister were ugly and beautiful and I think there is a part of me that wants everything to stop so that I can figure out how I feel. But nothing stops. Life keeps going and there’s no time to put all the different feelings out on the table and go through them. Maybe it’s a good thing…that grieving death has to happen in the small gaps that come while living.
Thanksgiving is almost here. My kids will be here and I will cook a meal and we will enjoy a brief time of being together. I will bask in the sounds of life in my home, the sound of my 5 month old granddaughter, my kid’s laughter, the stories around the table. And I will be thankful, but this year, thankfulness will look different.
I will be thankful that I had the opportunity to hold my sister’s hand while she died. As hard as it was, I will cherish it. It represents a relationship that I am grateful to have had with her. Someone once remarked that it would be better not to have relationships, because then you don’t have to go through things like this…the sadness and the pain of losing them. I would rather know the pain of losing someone I knew and loved, than to have missed out on that relationship. Relationships are worth the risk of pain.
I am thankful that I know that death has no sting for those who belong to Christ. In the midst of her dying, fighting for every breath, I heard God say, “Cancer got her body, but that’s all it gets. I get everything else”. I am thankful my sister still lives, though she has died. I am thankful to have had the privilege of watching her grow spiritually, watching her hold onto faith in the midst of suffering and to know that she has received the reward of her faith.
I am thankful that I witnessed the goodness of people. Friends and family who displayed so much kindness, who sat with us quietly because there was nothing else they could do, who brought food and snacks for yours truly, who spent six days eating her emotions. For the care of the hospice nurses and aides who were heroic in the way they cared for my sister, because not once did I feel like they were simply earning a paycheck. I am thankful because I got to see the kindness of people, not just in the midst of my own circumstance, but in the midst of all that is going on in the world that makes us afraid. I saw death, but I also saw good, and I saw caring, and I saw the softness of people in a harsh world.
And I am thankful for life. For whatever time is mine, I want it to matter. And what I discovered is that all of the things that mattered to my sister, no longer mattered in the end. Her belongings, her lack of money, her fears and worries…blown away like breath on a dandelion. What mattered was that she mattered to the people she loved. What mattered was that she was surrounded by people who wanted to take care of her as she died, who saw it as a privilege and not a burden. Because she had loved us. In the end, it wasn’t what she gave us or did for us. It wasn’t stuff or money or anything temporal that made us want to care for her, made us willing to carry her into death. It was the fact that she loved us, and we knew it, and we loved her back.
I am thankful to have glimpsed what really matters. Not whether I lived life to the fullest, with gusto. Not whether I had enough or even gave enough. It will not matter whether I did great things. What will matter is, did I love in such a way that those around me knew they were loved? It matters, in the end, and for all us there will be an end.
Of all the questions that I have for God, He answered one that I hadn’t asked. What will matter the most when my time here is over? I am not surprised by the answer I found.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres…
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1Corinthians 13:1-13
My sister did not have much to give to anyone. Illness kept her from being able to physically do a whole lot. She always wanted to be able to help someone learn more about God. She wanted to do something with her life, something good and important, and always felt sad that she couldn’t go on a mission trip (to any place but Africa), or share the gospel like other people. But she did what mattered. She loved the people in her life. Her mission field was her family and friends and she sowed what God gave her. Love.
So, Kimmie, I hope that now you know the truth. You did more than you know, and what you did mattered the most. You loved. Well done sweetie, well done. And now I will say it one more time, and I will hear the echo of the response you always gave.
Me: I love you.
You: I love you more. You know that, right? Of course you do.
I’m going to miss that most of all, I think.
6 thoughts on “death and what really matters”
I am a little late, but I’m also sorry for your loss. I have sister who is living, but she lives in Germany, so we rarely talk, much less see each other. Regardless, we have one thing in common, don’t we? One day we will see our sisters again.
Thanks Anthony. It is what gives peace in the midst of the loss…the knowledge that we will see them again.
Karla, I’m so sorry for your loss, and I pray for God’s comfort for you through this time. These are profound thoughts and words. I especially agree with this: “What will matter is, did I love in such a way that those around me knew they were loved? “
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Thank you Cheri.
Sorry for your loss Karla. Thank you for sharing.
Marilyn’s Dad was killed in tragic circumstances in 1979. Nine months later our first child was born. A new life. Marilyn’s Mum then lived until 2003. After she was widowed she set about living a life of blessing others. There was standing room only at her thanksgiving service.
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